History Belongs To Me

I try not to let politics taint my blog – after all, we have good doses of them in our daily life, news, twitter and facebook.
But I also am starting to get really mad because this country is starting to go crazy and crack in the wrong places. Malaysia is never famous for the good stuff – we’re a country of crooks and cons, and I suppose foreigners shudder if they hear news about us.
We’re possibly the craziest of the crazies. Whenever I am listening to webinars or talks, Asia is about Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and sometimes The Phillipines. What happened to Malaysia? It’s as if we don’t exist as a country! We’re THAT notorious!
And yet, Malaysians are the nicest, kindest folks – hardworking, amiable, pleasant, great with languages, difficult to pin down and full of character!
I’ve stopped reading newspapers because everyday is full of the same crap. Nic and I have given up eating at mamak places in Penang mainly because we don’t want to support people who are obnoxious. Our ringgit should go to more deserving makan places. We don’t even want to go to a particular breakfast place in Langkawi because his politics suck.
Anyway, the latest episode of craziness stirred U-Jean, a friend who’s passionate about the arts, to write a heartfelt missive to the Malaysian Insider. I first watched her perform a few years ago, as a kapitan Cina, and thought to myself, “Wow. This girl can act and sing and dance.” (U-Jean is wearing the light blue coolie baju in the photo. See if you can spot her!)
When I got to know her, she’s every bit as quirky and audacious as she writes. (And by the way, I don’t know much of Banting’s history either… so if there’s a similar programme for Selangor, all teens should join!). Politics should never taint the pure intentions of children and youth who are passionate about the oral histories of the place. If Farid is so upset, he should set up his own team and write his own oral history! But then again, we know what ‘tin kosong’ does! It’s all noise but no action.
And bravo, U-Jean! I know Malaysia WILL be a better place if we had more people who really learnt and loved history!
Speaking up for Arts-Ed — U-Jean
February 13, 2011
FEB 13 — If you and I are of the same generation (born in 1988), plus minus a few years, you would probably agree that our History education sucks. Mindless memorisation of useless facts, overemphasis on naming the correct years and characters, uncreative and dreadful learning experience, and the oh-so-clearly disproportionate reading of “world” history, all for the sake of getting an A for the SPM History paper.
Coming from a top school in Penang, where we were groomed for A’s by practising on revision books, trial papers, forecast papers, and past-year papers, I got my very well-deserved A.
This A, however, represents nothing but a failure in our History education.
In the Form 1 textbook that we used, it tells you why you should learn history. One of them is to “mengenal jati diri”. Till today, I still have no idea what that means. We all learned “history” because it is a compulsory subject in SPM.
In 2006, I got myself involved in a heritage project sponsored by Digi. Digi conferred the title of “Amazing Malaysians” to heritage champions in this country and these heritage champions had to carry out a heritage project with young people. I was a participant under Amazing Malaysian Janet Pillai (of Arts-Ed), and that year was the turning point of my life.
At the age of 18, I was one of the oldest participants in the project. At the end of the project, we were to stage a musical drama on the history of George Town. For three months, we spent our weekends discovering for ourselves what heritage is.
We had the privilege of being brought on historical walks around George Town, we scoured the streets to document the sight and sounds of George Town, we spoke to and interviewed people about old George Town, and we learned about performing, making music out of random objects, boria, gamelan, wayang kulit, and composing.
I came out from that project a transformed person. I found history amazing, I found Penang amazing, I learned different ways of learning history, I learned to be inclusive of people, I learned that I very much enjoy performing, I learned humility, I learned to work with people of different ages and ethnic, and most of all, I had fallen in love with Penang.
People around me see me as “the Penang girl”. Some would claim that I’m the unofficial Penang tourism rep for always being so gung-ho about Penang. I am the unpaid tour guide for my non-Penang friends because I am almost always so willing to show them around. I am so Penang that one can take me out of Penang but they can’t take the Penang out of me. Oh, do ask my friends…
Now, we have the learning of our national history in place but what I find missing is the learning of our local history. If you are from Banting, what do you know about Banting’s history? If you are from Ipoh, what do you know about Ipoh’s history? If you are from Kulim, what do you know about Kulim’s history?
This is basically what Arts-Ed, the NGO trapped in the recent Balik Pulau controversy, does.
Or at least what they have done for me. Through them, I learned the value of local history.
For people unfamiliar with the “Arts-Ed” style of executing a project, Arts-Ed works with young people in creative ways. Things one does not get do in school. We use cameras to take pictures, produce photo exhibitions, shoot and edit videos, compose lyrics from interviews, create dance moves through observation of people’s movements, perform history of the common people, produce booklets and newsletter, carry out visits and tours.
I learned that history is not limited to textbooks and history experts but what the average layperson experiences and remembers are also part of history. There are stories and legends about the place we live that we can never read from books.
Things like coolies running to the port with their handcarts to carry sacks of spices, that they were paid 50 sen for each bag they carried, the system of loading and unloading goods from the ship to the boat, the “stairway” arrangements of the sacks, and that the head of the coolies were called “tandaal”, and the division of profit between the coolies and the “tandaal”.
History books do not tell me this. Laypeople do.
Arts Ed encourages young people to leave their books and collect stories. These are called oral histories. Stories that are transmitted verbally, that some of us youngsters classify as “grandmother stories”, and will be lost when its bearer dies. And when you learn how cute, distinct, and special the place you live is, that’s when you learn to love the place you live.
This is what Arts-Ed is doing in Balik Pulau. Documenting and presenting oral history of the people of Balik Pulau, preserving them so that the younger generation would know, understand, and carry them on.
As a proud graduate of Arts-Ed’s projects, it saddens me that the only NGO who gives a voice to young people, who works in creative ways, who educate for free (almost), who believe that everyone has a right to tell their story, and runs on fewer women-power than the number of fingers on your one hand, is now accused of spreading fallacy, a scapegoat and victim of a political agenda.
How irresponsible for people ignorant about the learning of history nor care about them to put Arts-Ed in a bad light when they themselves are not clear about Arts Ed methodology of education.
Muhammad Farid Saad, here’s a lesson on history. History does not belong to experts. History does not belong to the state. History belongs to everyone and we all have a say in history (yes, that includes you).
Your recollection of history matters just as much as the laksa uncle’s and the aunty jus buah pala’s. As has been clarified, MyBalikPulau is not a textbook and is was not intended to be so, it is but a compilation of oral history.
Stories from uncles and aunties. People whose opinions and memories will never ever appear in the history books just because they are not history experts. Will you deny them a chance to share their history of Balik Pulau?
Though you may never have the chance to be in Arts-Ed’s programmes (as they usually only for young people) I hope you will make the effort to learn about Arts-Ed and their ways because they have changed my life. They have played a major role in shaping who I am today and I hope other children will have the chance to experience what I have experienced.
Someday, should I become the chief minister of Penang, I know that Arts-Ed has started this path for me.

The Hill of Stories

Yoke Pin actually started with the history of Balik Pulau laksa which is quite apt as people do arrive in hoardes for this noodle dish.
Of course, Nic and I were privileged to hear the OTHER laksa story, as told to us by Mr Tan, the equally famous laksa stall owner. But then again, he told us his story because he saw me looking through the myBalikPulau map, a map of the interesting and quaint places of the town.
This map is published by artsED, a non-profit organisation which offers arts education to young people. It is a guide to what’s what in Balik Pulau as it gives a non-resident some idea of the town, what to eat, where to go and what to expect.
Mr Tan must have been peeved that his stall was NOT mentioned in this map. Uncle John’s laksa stall got all the acclaim in this map so he must’ve felt he needed to defend his laksa lineage. He even started grumbling that the facts in the map were wrong etc because the researchers (comprising youths) did not get the right stories! I listened, bemused.
Anyway, his grumpiness didn’t spoil the trip at all. We had fun walking down the one main street of Balik Pulau town. (Speaking of laksa, YB Yusmadi, the MP who followed us on this visit, told us about another laksa called Laksa Janggus. It is called such because it is situated under a bunch of janggus or cashewnut trees. This is a self-service style where you pile your own laksa ingredients and serve yourself. It’s located on Jalan Bharu.)
We learnt about the famous landmark, the roundabout which was actually a water pump and trough in the olden days for horses to drink from! Due to vandalism, the top part made of metal is missing. Originally a water pump, it became a monument/roundabout in 1882 due to a rich farmer called Koh Seang Tatt. Koh decided to build it when Sir Frederick Weld came for a visit. Until today, it is still one of the best landmarks of this town. If you do get lost, just find your way to this landmark. It is the meeting point of 3 different roads.
Climbing the Hills for God
The Roman Catholics were also here since 1800s. In fact you can see their churches and schools – SMK Sacred Heart and SMK St George as well as the quaint Roman Catholic church after Sacred Heart school. The church began as an attap house in 1854 but soon grew bigger as the parishioners grew more and more (they gave land to the Hakka who became Catholics!). That’s why there’s a number of Hakka in this town, no doubt drawn by the exciting lure of land.
In those days, the Caucasian priests who conducted mass had to learn the local dialects such as Hakka in order to communicate with their congregation. Interestingly too, the priests had to make that 3-4 hour trek from the other side of the island through the Air Itam Reservoir hills to reach Balik Pulau in order to conduct mass! Now that is amazing.
Yoke Pin also told us about the silversmith in town, Mr Fong who makes tiny handcrafted silver miniature knick-knacks. He’s growing old so he doesn’t take custom orders anymore. His shop is at the right of the roundabout if you are coming down from the main road of the town.

Mr Fong's signage is in 3 different languages.
Mr Fong's signage is in 3 different languages.

Old Photos Wanted
We ended up at the Moral Uplifting Society where we got a slideshow of historical Balik Pulau. According to Yoke Pin, it was difficult for them to get old photos of the town. So if you are from Balik Pulau, or have relatives who still have old photos or old stories of this town, please contact her or PHT. PHT and artsED are compiling the history of this town and need all the help they can get.
Balik Pulau in the old days...this is main street
Balik Pulau in the old days...this is main street

I heartily support the writing of history from the local people’s perspective. Old stories, old chit-chat. These allow us to go back in time and relive the times. With it comes appreciation for what the early settlers had to endure to build up a town. I cannot imagine how it must be for priests to trek their way here to do mass, or how far removed the residents here were from Georgetown.
The Yellow Bus Company bus depot in Balik Pulau
The Yellow Bus Company bus depot in Balik Pulau

This ulu-ness from town was another source of one man’s riches. Tan Sri Loh Boon Siew at that time had the idea of starting a bus service which serviced Balik Pulau. The Yellow Bus Company was the only way residents living here could travel to town in those days. The bus depot is no longer there as the Yellow Bus Company has gone out of business (though if you look closely you can still see the bus depot).
Can you see the old bus depot behind the Pensonic signboard?
Can you see the old bus depot behind the Pensonic signboard?

There’s really a number of interesting things to do in Balik Pulau if you wander long enough. Yusmadi spoke of the homestay village for tourists who wanted to sample the Malay villagers’ way of life. One of the rustic villages was voted the cleanest village in Malaysia, according to Yusmadi.
This young politician seemed genuine enough in wanting to help his town to grow and he invited everyone who wanted to help to pitch in to grow the town in positive ways. We got invited to visit his service centre, painted a bright yellow you can’t miss (and located at the strategic junction between Jalan Tun Sardon and Main Road). He was starting a community centre to bring the residents together to develop the town and yet at the same time preserving what was meaningful.
Visiting Yusmadi's service centre
Visiting Yusmadi's service centre

Another Laksa Place
So what else is there in Balik Pulau?
There’s another laksa shack near the Chinese fishing village of Kuala Jalan Bharu which sells not only laksa but Hokkien mee and lor-bak. I’ve tasted the laksa at this place and it is again, deliciousness in a bowl. But this place opens only on Saturday and Sunday from 12 noon to 5pm. Lots of out-of-towners come here. It’s like some secret hideout where people in the know will know how to get here! It’s actually a villager’s wooden house where the porch becomes the makeshift eating area. I was introduced to this place by an Englishman, of all people. (Thanks Nigel!)
More Stuff to See and Do
There’s just too many interesting spots to blog about and I recommend you picking up a copy of the myBalikPulau map so you can hunt down all the yummy makan spots, belacan factories, air nira stalls, coconut plantations, batik shack, Stepping Stone Centre (run by Asia Community Service, an NGO), paddy fields, beach (Pantai Pasir Panjang), Pulau Betong fishing village, herb garden in Kampung Sg Korok, kuih bahulu maker, bedak sejuk maker and lots more.
This map is available at the Arts-ED website plus you can see how the map was conceptualised and brought to life by the children of Balik Pulau.
So the next time someone says Penang is boring, ask them if they’ve explored Balik Pulau, the agricultural heartland of the island.